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The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley

The Water-Babies (original 1863; edition 1862)

by Charles Kingsley

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Title:The Water-Babies
Authors:Charles Kingsley
Info:The Readers Library
Collections:Your library
Tags:fiction, children's, Victorian, fairy tale, satire

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The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley (1863)


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This was not for me. Yes, I understand the importance of the book at time, how it was a satire on Darwin’s classic and the fact that it predates Alice in Wonderland did impress me when I compared their publication dates. But it just got on my nerves after about chapter three and from then on right until the end where, confronted with the most ridiculous last line in the history of literature, my patience gave way entirely.

So what irritated me? Well, the awful patronising tone of Kingsley the narrator who writes as if everyone is a) male and b) white Caucasian and c) wealthy, educated, clean and morally superior. It’s patronising and prejudiced in the extreme and pulls no punches in its portrayal of the Scots, the Irish, the Jews, etc.

There’s this kid Tom who ends up going up one chimney and coming down the wrong one in some massive house which just happens to border some land which contains a stream where, for fear of his life, he flees and, somehow, becomes a Water Baby, some kind of waterbound fairy.

He then undertakes, for reasons not apprent to me, some epic quest to get to the Back End of Somewhere or the Bottom Side of Everywhere or somesuch meaningless location. Along the way, he meets a range of fantastic beings who are loosely based on magical interpretations of real life beings. Most are as patronisingly moralising as Kingsley himself so there’s really no let up. The story’s really not that interesting actually. You certainly don’t really care what happens to Tom. If he’d been eaten by a pike, I don’t think I would have noticed actually.

Of course, he achieves his aim, but this is by means of passing some kind of moral litmus test of doing something right even though it’s not something he wants to do. The implication is that our highest moral deeds are those which are done in the face of extreme distaste.

That’s a great shame for people like Mother Theresa whose entire life’s work count for nothing because they actually love people and want to help them. Bummer. Yep, next time I actually want to inconvenience myself for the sake of others, I’ll think twice before doing so and wait until I really, really, deep, deep down in my heart don’t want to at all. Then it will count.

But, count for what exactly? For nothing at all of course. Kingsley seems to have believed that you attain some kind of moral status by piling up good actions one after another (all without wanting to of course). What a sad fallacy for such an intelligent man to propound. No matter what we do in this life, we’re all so far short of moral perfection that we all pretty much look the same from the viewpoint of moral purity.

Anyway, all loose ends are neatly tied up and put to bed with a kiss and a warm glass of milk. Then, after having said repeatedly every other paragraph that just because someone says something is not true, that doesn’t mean it isn’t, the epilogue tells you not to bother believing a word of anything you’ve just read even if it is true. Great. Thanks.

Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are so, so much better at giving us a satirical insight into ourselves and our lives than The Water Babies there’s hardly any comparison between them. Lewis Carrol was a genius who took Kingsley’s timebound witterings and made them into a timeless literary classic which both children and adults will treasure for hundreds of years to come, long after the last person has read that pointless last line of The Water Babies for the last time in human history. ( )
  arukiyomi | Apr 17, 2015 |
this edition had a lot of notes to help you understand the references. i didn't enjoy them so stopped and enjoyed the book a lot more. the story is a good one but kingsley makes all these weird references and silly jokes. i think he was trying to be lewis carroll. kids would never understand them and their readers would have trouble. bought in florida ( )
  mahallett | Mar 6, 2015 |
What a wonderful story! It is full of the most fabulous wordplay and I enjoyed it immensely. While not "politically correct" (part of the fun of it), you have to remember it was first published in 1863. In fact, since it's in the public domain, you can get it free on an eReader at feedbooks.com. ( )
1 vote DonnaMarieMerritt | Apr 6, 2014 |
A moral fable written in the 1800's. Written by a reverend. I appreciated some of his efforts at morality but didn't like the feminism of the God like characters. ( )
  Kristelh | Nov 16, 2013 |
The Water-Babies first appeared in book form in May 1863, exactly a century-and-a-half ago. Though I was probably aware of it when younger, I must have read it for myself pretty much a half-century ago in one of those cheap Dent’s children’s classics editions. A decade later I was re-reading it and taking notes, spurred on by the challenge Kingsley issues in his dedication:
Come read me my riddle, each good little man:
If you cannot read it, no grown-up folk can.

Of course, The Water-Babies was written for his youngest son, Grenville Arthur, who was just five when the last chapter was serialised in Macmillan’s Magazine, but I felt that I was included amongst the ‘all other good little boys’ of the dedication. But being from a hundred and more years later I could hardly be expected to get all the references, and so began decades of intermittent desultory research. This 1995 issue with Brian Alderson’s introduction, extensive notes, select bibliography and chronology of Kingsley’s life both confirmed and hugely expanded my understanding of the novel; but to be honest I still feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of this fascinating if flawed masterpiece. This review, therefore, can only hint at the solution to Kingsley’s sly riddle.

Its serialisation in eight monthly instalments works in favour of The Water-Babies' structure. The first chapter is mostly set in Harthover Place, which we must now imagine as a grand pile somewhere in North Yorkshire (though its principal model is Bramshill House in Hampshire, on the market in 2013 for £25 million). Kingsley’s own contradictory character is aptly matched by the Place’s topsy-turvy architecture where the most ancient parts are the attics and wings and the core of the building the most recent. On a midsummer morning Tom the climbing boy – whose name and nature is derived from a multitude of sources, from Mesopotamian god Thammuz to William Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ – gets lost in its maze of chimneys and emerges into the bedroom of Miss Ellie, the young sleeping beauty of Harthover. The resulting hue-and-cry after the presumed thief through woods and moors and up to Lewthwaite Crag (a thinly-disguised Malham Cove) is wonderfully narrated, and gives rein to Kingsley’s impassioned evocation of nature.

Chapter II takes Tom down into Vendale, a fictional river valley – later purloined by novelist William Mayne in, for example, The Twelve Dancers. Tom comes into contact with the first of many mysterious feminine archetypes who guide his way through to maturity, a mysterious Irishwoman, and then an older woman who runs a Dame School; this theme must reflect Kingsley’s experience, typical of the age, of a loving mother and a distant or aloof father. What then happens to the unfortunate Tom breaks the heart, based as it must be on the distressing experience Kingsley had when at boarding school in Devon. His younger brother Herbert foolishly stole a silver spoon to sell before running away from school and spending the night in the open. After being arrested Herbert became ill with rheumatic fever and died, to Charles’ great anguish. Though his death was attributed to a heart condition exacerbated by the fever, there is a Helston tradition that he drowned himself in Looe Pool. Whatever the truth of the matter, knowing that his younger brother died in a misadventure following a theft adds real poignancy to Kingsley’s tale. Before 1862 Charles was also to suffer the loss of a sister in infancy, another brother at sea and, most recently, his father.

But Tom’s accidental drowning in the Vendale stream is not the end of the matter. Here he is reborn as a water-baby less than four inches long, with a set of external gills to help him survive underwater. Now, you might think that as a clergyman Kingsley would expect innocents to go to heaven. However, Tom was not a Christian and had never been to church, so the author’s solution is to turn Tom into the aquatic version of a fairy or elf, with a chance of redemption through intentions and actions. Here begins Kingsley’s morphing of the fairy tale for a land-baby into something much more complex, a transformation which can leave modern readers cold as they are subjected to his many digressions on social and scientific issues, his references to contemporary events and people, his moralising and his prejudices. Without the homework that could help enlighten Kingsley’s obscurities The Water-Babies is a tough climb, and here Brian Alderson is a top-notch guide.

Tom’s rehabilitation starts in the trout stream, where he learns a live-and-let-live existence with his fellow creatures, has a fright involving his former master Grimes and then catches his first sight of other water-babies like himself. By Chapter IV he has moved down to the sea where, as luck will have had it, he has a close encounter with Miss Ellie and her pedantic tutor. Kingsley’s love of lists in the manner of Rabelais comes to the fore here, a distraction from the tragedy-in-waiting which will profoundly affect Tom’s future. In Chapter V Tom finally meets and mingles with other water-babies before encountering two more feminine archetypes, Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and her sister fairy Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid, personifications of the Golden Rule from the Sermon on the Mount, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. He has more life lessons to learn if he is to achieve his desire, especially that those who want to go to a better place “must go first where they do not like, and do what they do not like, and help somebody they do not like.” And thus he embarks on his journey to the Other-end-of-Nowhere, a kaleidoscopic quest that takes up most of the remainder of the book.

Kingsley was such a complex character, full of contradictions. Modern sensibilities are quite rightly uncomfortable with comments he makes on Jews, the Irish, Catholics and Africans, and it’s no real defence to say that these attitudes were commonplace in his day. And yet we know, for example, that he happily entertained the Queen of the Sandwich Islands in his rectory, and that he regarded the treatment of blacks in the Confederate States during the American Civil War as inhumane. He was a chaplain to Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales’ tutor at Cambridge, and yet as a Christian Socialist he was ever mindful of and sympathetic to the needs of ordinary people, such as city-dwellers succumbing to avoidable disease, and the gypsies of his parish. As an Anglican clergyman he was deeply religious and yet he fully agreed with the evolutionary principles in Darwin’s Origin of Species published in 1859. He combined a bookishness (sermons, novels, lectures, poems, reviews and scientific papers poured from his pen) with a love of athleticism and the outdoors – he loved cold baths in streams – so much so that his approach gave rise to the popular term ‘muscular Christianity’.

So it’s not surprising that The Water-Babies – with its ramblings, enthusiasms, sensibilities, love of nature, empathy, wide reading, poetry and humour – perfectly reflects the man. Kingsley’s novel antedated the first Alice book by a couple of years and anticipated many of the features that are normally associated with Lewis Carroll’s two children’s classics, as many a commentator has noted before now. References to a lobster, Cheshire cat and March hare occur in both, for example, but the Cheshire Cat wasn’t in Carroll’s original 1862-3 draft for Alice Liddell. There is little room here to note other parallels in detail – both authors were called Charles, were clergymen (though Carroll was only a deacon), suffered from stammers, were passable artists and were feted by royalty, for instance – but as only one of these classics has remained in the popular consciousness one has to assume that Kingsley’s moralising asides haven’t gone down well with subsequent generations. Compared with the handsome Victorian line illustrations of Linley Sambourne the later sentimental illustrations of Mabel Lucie Attwell and her ilk have not served the fortunes of the story well either.

It’s a shame, as for all his contradictions Kingsley comes across in this novel as both a sympathetic figure and a very modern writer. The last chapter includes a critique of Victorian examination-led schooling which is sadly applicable to contemporary fears of a cramming culture in UK state education. Much of his prose hymn to Nature in The Water-Babies has a Green tinge not out of place in debates about biodiversity and climate change. And his dispassionate description of the conditions climbing boys suffered led directly to a law banning the practice, a parallel to present-day concerns about child abuse and moves towards more effective child protection.

It’s impossible to do justice to this captivating fairy tale in a short review. But 150 years after its publication The Water-Babies is surely due a reassessment and a new appreciation of its messages and beauties. Maybe I need to dig out and update those old notes of mine and attempt a proper answer to Kingsley’s riddle.

http://wp.me/s2oNj1-wb ( )
  ed.pendragon | Jul 27, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (53 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Charles Kingsleyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Attwell, Mabel LucieIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Beards, Richard D.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Goble, WarwickIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Italiander, MikeIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Johnstone, Anne GrahameIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kirk, Maria L.Illustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
MacDonald, RobertaIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mozley, CharlesIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Robinson, W. HeathIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sambourne, LinleyIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tarrant, Margaret W.Illustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vihervaara, LyyliTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wall Perné, Gust van deIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Once upon a time there was a little chimney-sweep, and his name was Tom.
No one has a right to say that no water-babies exist, till they have seen no water-babies existing.
And whither she went, thither she came.
It's so beautiful, it must be true!
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Haiku summary
Life after death? Yes!
Climbing-boy now wet infant,
somehow born-again.

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0486450007, Paperback)

A young chimney sweep enters a magical waterworld where he meets creatures that teach him the difference between right and wrong. Delightful characters such as Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby will enchant today's young readers just as they did well over a century ago. A lavish edition of a children's classic. 32 illustrations.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:22 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

The adventures of Tom, a sooty little chimney sweep with a great longing to be clean, who is stolen by fairies and turned into a water baby.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 10 descriptions

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0140367365, 0143105094

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